President Bush surprised some people when he spoke sympathetically about ex-convicts during his State of the Union address and announced a proposal to furnish mentoring, job placement and transitional housing for ex-offenders. The $300 million budget is far too small, but it was heartening to hear Mr. Bush acknowledge that there was more to crime prevention than just locking up people -- and that pushing ex-cons into a hostile world without help is a recipe for civic disaster.
The United States has the largest, most expensive and fastest-growing prison system in the world, and it may be unsustainable over the long run. Faced with a national price tag for corrections that exceeds $50 billion per year, states are being forced to re-evaluate the stiff sentencing policies that drove up the prison population to more than 2 million, from 200,000 three decades ago. In recent years, 25 states have eased sentencing policies and reinstated early release and treatment programs for drug offenders, now about a quarter of the nation's prisoners.
These sentencing changes would have been politically impossible 20 years ago, when the country was racked by a crack-inspired crime wave. The states responded with stiff sentences for certain crimes. Then, over the last decade, national crime rates fell sharply. Prosecutors and the police rushed to take credit, arguing that crime had gone down because criminals had been locked up.
The problem with this explanation is that crime went down just as much in states that did not adopt tough new policing and sentencing strategies as in states that embraced them. The emerging consensus is that mass incarceration accounts for only a fraction of the drop in violent crime. The strong economy of the 1990's clearly played a role, as did demographic factors -- and the ending of the crack epidemic, aided by teenagers who shunned the drug after seeing parents and older siblings destroyed.
If society hopes to maintain that welcome drop in crime, whatever its causes, it must now confront the fact that mass imprisonment creates a huge population of ex-convicts. About 600,000 hit the streets each year with no skills, no place to live and few family connections. These former offenders are almost always ruled out of consideration for decent jobs and are further marginalized by laws that bar them from getting student loans or driver's licenses, from voting and from becoming tenants in public housing developments. Many revert to lawlessness and end up back in prison within a few brief years.
Mr. Bush was on point when he said that "America is the land of [the] second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life." But more money is needed to make his initiative more than a gesture. In addition, the country will need to change its attitude before it can reincorporate the millions of ex-offenders who stand at the margins of society with no clear way into the mainstream.
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